It’s not enough to know that something is the way it is; I want to know why it is the way it is. This did not serve me well my study of mathematics since, when I got down to basic axioms and postulates, the answer to why was often: just because.
It’s one of the reasons mathematics and I have had such a rocky relationship.
It’s also why I have a love/hate relationship with recipes.
Recipes tell me what to do, but not why I should do it. Don’t get me wrong; recipes are great as a way to capture a particular dish, but in the end, they teach me little more than a procedure. I can follow each step to perfection and create the best whatever-it-is, but if I mess something up, or if it’s a cool day, or if the humidity is high, and the dish turns out wrong/different/bad, in the end, I do not know why.
I’ve read a lot of books on cooking, and though they’ve tried, none of them have successfully taught me the elusive why of the culinary arts.
Ruhlman’s Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman, chef and food journalist, is subtitled “A Cook’s Manifesto” which I think is more marketing bravura than actual description. What Ruhlman’s book is, is a distillation of the craft of cooking: twenty chapters, each dedicated to a basic ingredient or a basic technique.
With one exception: Chapter One.
Chapter One in Ruhlman’s Twenty is the most important chapter in the entire book. Entitled Think, it tells us to do just that. Moreover, it sets the theme for the book, a theme that Ruhlman hits again and again. Think about what you’re doing. Think about the flavors. Think about what you want and whether or not your results match your expectation. Don’t work by rote. Don’t add seasoning without considering the whole. Think.
Tom Colicchio tried to make me Think Like a Chef, and the Larousse tried to tell me about everything Gastronomique, but where they failed, Ruhlman succeeded. Without going all modernist and nerdy, each chapter in Ruhlman’s Twenty clearly states why the technique or ingredient is so important, why it works the way it works, and which are the best ways to use it. This is then followed by a handful of recipes that exemplify the lesson of the chapter.
The chapters on ingredients–Salt, Egg, Sugar, Butter, Water, Onion, etc.–are just as illuminating and instructive as those on basic techniques: Sauté, Grill, Fry, Braise. Personally, the chapter on Acid had the greatest effect on my thinking. I’d never really considered acid–the tartness of citrus, the zip of vinegar–as a seasoning. After reading the chapter and after applying my new understanding in a few of the recipes, I now consider acidity as a basic component of a flavor profile, in every dish from butter-p0ached prawns to New York cheesecake. I now think about acidity, along with all the other types of flavors.
I’ve tried several recipes from Ruhlman’s Twenty; each one is simple and concise–rarely more than a page long, including an introduction–and in following each one I truly was thinking differently. I understood the why of what I was doing, and this filled me with confidence and inspiration. Suddenly, instead of only learning how to make Sweet Bell Pepper Soup, I instantly had ideas for similar soups based on broccoli, peas, or even cantaloupe, all using the same basic technique and understanding I’d gained. As a cook and foodie, this was a watershed moment in which I realized that I had changed. I was thinking differently. My outlook had been changed by the knowledge I’d acquired.
If you’ve had training in the culinary arts, if you’ve studied techniques and can name all the mother sauces and their offspring, you probably don’t need this book.
On the other hand, if you’re an autodidact like I am, if you’ve picked up your cooking expertise a little here, a little there, some Alton, some Julia, some Jacques, then I heartily recommend this book. The text is filled with enthusiasm and notes of self-discovery. The recipes are both basic and excellent. The photography is reserved for the recipes where it will be the most instructive. This book is full of good, basic, comprehensible information, and may very well change the way you think–about food, about cooking, about flavor–as you read and learn the why of it all.